For me the most depressing thing last year – I realise I probably should have been more moved by people dying from Covid 19, or by the wars and massacres going on all over, but I’m afraid they didn’t upset me so much – was the vicious press campaign against Jeremy Corbyn, who is almost the only decent politician we have left in England, and the one who has been right about almost everything; and in particular the charge against him, and the Labour Party, of anti-Semitism.
That was a difficult charge for Labour to combat when it originally came up in 2016, first because it was untrue; and secondly because it was the very last thing that Labour Party members would have suspected of themselves, in view of the Party’s strong and consistent line on anti-racism throughout its history, its strong Jewish membership, and the way its whole philosophy had been informed by Judaeo-Christian ideals. Honestly, the charge of ‘anti-Semitism’ took us (I was in the party then) all completely by surprise, which is why we didn’t take as much notice of it as we probably should have done. It was as if a tree were accused of uprooting itself and running around (I’m sorry, I’m living in a very sylvan environment just now, and can’t think of a better metaphor): i.e. simply inconceivable. Here’s my own initial reaction to it: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/04/28/anti-semitism-and-labour/; which was followed up by others along the same lines. I suspect that this may have been why ‘anti-Semitism’ was chosen by Corbyn’s enemies – as a charge so utterly ridiculous that we wouldn’t have prepared any defences against it.
Things got more difficult as the Right-wing press seized on it, knowing full well how noxious an accusation like this that would seem to readers brought up on images of Hitler’s death camps; almost equivalent to the charges of paedophilia that were also going around at that time. (I’m mildly surprised that the press didn’t accuse Corbyn of that too.) The effect of this on the hierarchy of the Labour party was two-fold: to panic like frightened rabbits into agreeing to ‘investigations’ into the supposed ‘problem’: it must be a problem, mustn’t it if the Daily Mail and Dame Margaret Hodge were saying it was; but secondly, for those on the Right of that hierarchy (aka ‘moderates’), to use it themselves to drive the dangerously socialist Corbyn out. The investigations duly took place, one of them under the auspices of the European Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and found virtually no evidence of anti-Semitism in the party: just a few marginal and ambiguous utterances or ‘tropes’, much less in fact than you would find in any other large part of the population; to which the Press’s reaction was to abandon this ground and instead to highlight a suggestion in one of the reports to the effect that Corbyn had not done enough to stamp anti-Semitism out. Actually he had been very active in this respect; but even if not who could blame him, in view of the fact that there wasn’t any serious anti-Semitism anyway?
The result of all this was that the mud remained sticking to him. I realised this when the driver of the taxi I engaged to drive me to Stansted Airport last July (to avoid the plague) told me that he had been going to vote Labour in the previous election, until he read about ‘all that anti-Semitic stuff’. This is only one example, I grant you, but I can’t believe he was alone. Indeed, this gargantuan smear may have been one (only) of the reasons why Labour lost that election, and so why we have landed up, as a nation, where we are today.
Since then we have learned much more about how the smear was orchestrated and pushed not only by the Right-wing press, but also by agencies of the Israeli state. I realise that might make me seem like a ‘conspiracy theorist’, but here’s just one bit of evidence: https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/asa-winstanley/we-slaughtered-jeremy-corbyn-says-israel-lobbyist. So far as Israel was concerned, of course, Corbyn’s sin was his support for a Palestinian state; and his criticism of the colonial expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and of the over-reactions of the Israeli Defence Force to Palestinian protests and rocket attacks. (We’re seeing more of this just now.) His hostility to the present Israeli government, therefore, was either motivated by ‘anti-semitism’, or was a sign of anti-semitism in itself. So believes (or pretends) Netanyahu, who makes no distinction between the two.
As neither, apparently, did the Jewish Board of Deputies in Britain; at whose insistence the Labour Party was persuaded to adopt a ‘working definition’ of ‘anti-semitism’ tabled by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which appeared to link anti-semitism with criticism of the state of Israel, but in truth didn’t really. (It only suggested that ‘anti-Zionism’ might be a mask for anti-Semitism. For a much sounder definition google this year’s Jerusalem Declaration.) When Keir Starmer became Leader of the Labour Party he not only embraced the IHRA statement as party policy, but also forbad constituency parties from even discussing it – or, for that matter, his expulsion of the pro-Palestinian former Leader from the party. (This was when student unions were being threatened with huge fines for ‘no-platforming’ speakers.) The party also incidentally wrote to me to warn me that my reluctance to believe that it harboured widespread anti-Semitism was anti-Semitic in itself. It was in protest against this that I resigned from the party last year. (I don’t imagine they noticed at Party HQ.)
The reason that this has come up with me again today is that yesterday evening I tuned into a ‘webinar’ launch under the auspices of the Haldane Society of a book on all this, called How the EHRC Got it so Wrong: https://www.versobooks.com/books/3922-how-the-ehrc-got-it-so-wrong (digital only). The speakers included – as well as prominent Jews (many Jews supported Corbyn) – Michael Mansfield QC, the human rights lawyer; Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC; Liz Fekete, Director of the Institute of Race Relations; Daniel Finn, Features editor of Jacobin magazine; and Peter Oborne, whose Assault on Truth: the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism – about Boris – I’d just read. It was I think the best Zoom session I’ve attended; but deeply depressing. Hence the opening words of this post.
Here are a couple of the things arising out of all this whole unsavoury affair that most depress me. The first is the apparent power of all these lies to mislead millions, through tabloid press headlines, TV presenters and reporters nervous of offending various ‘lobbies’, and the other forms of propaganda that are blighting our whole public discourse today. I’ve met intelligent people who still take the lies seriously, on dubious grounds like ‘there’s no smoke without fire’, ‘all politicians are the same’, ‘the truth must lie somewhere in between’, ‘how can we take him seriously when he dresses like Worzel Gummidge’, ‘that’s just a conspiracy theory’, ‘she’s a member of the élite’, and so on: none of them taking account of the arguments (if there are any) themselves. And of course very few people are really interested in politics, which in any case are in bad odour generally today (‘they’re all the same’); so perhaps we shouldn’t expect any better. But it seems to spell the victory of evil over good; of advertising over truth; of lies over honesty; of Goebbels over Corbyn. It’s enough to make one – me, anyway – weep; not just for poor Corbyn, but for our national future generally.
The second depressing thing for me is the possible effect of this anti-anti-Semitic campaign on my own attitude towards Jews. (Not the Jews – they’re not a monolithic body; a fact that the British Board of Deputies seemed ignorant of.) One of the slights that Jews have always had to suffer is of their ‘race’ as brainy but evil conspirators: against Christ originally, then in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and in dozens of political events since then. ‘Pro’-Semitic gentiles have always objected to that as a slander. Yet here we have Jews – some of them – clearly launching a ‘conspiracy’ against Corbyn; which can only confirm that prejudice. Isn’t this dangerous for Jews and Jewish communities all over? Mossad may be playing with fire. It’s obviously not going to make Jews as a category or as individuals better respected by any British socialists who may as a result be inclined to generalise about Jewry, in the same way that some Jews have taken to generalising about them. I’m not affected in this way. But the Labour Party may be. If it’s not anti-Semitic currently, this whole deplorable affair, and the suggestion that it could have lost them a crucial general election, could make it so.